April 17th, 2006 § § permalink
It’s simple; you play a note into the tuner, and it tells you whether you are sharp, flat, or in tune. If you are out of tune, then you adjust your pitch until the needle indicates that you are in tune. Job done; end of story; ’nuff said… right?
If this has been your approach to using a tuner, then you haven’t been getting the information you need from this extremely useful tool. In fact, you may even have been hurting your own playing in the process. “But I make sure I always peg the needle when I tune,” you reply, “This article can’t be talking about me!” Ironically, it is the needle-peggers that need this article the most.
When you make the decision to play “in tune” with the tuner, you are committing yourself to many things. First and foremost, you are committing yourself to the equitempered scale, the same one that a piano is tuned to. At first, this may seem a good and logical thing to be committed to, but a closer look points out some of the problems that this presents. The equitempered scale was designed so that we could play in many different keys, with no retuning required for the new key. However, the purest sounding intervals and chords are not generated using an equitempered scale. To make a chord ring, the members of the chord must be pried from their equitempered homes and moved slightly in one direction or another. For instance, a perfect fifth on a piano is not nearly as perfect as a fifth can be. In order for the fifth to resonate with absolute purity, the fifth needs to be raised from its equitempered position. Given that the perfect fifth serves as the foundation for all Major and Minor chords, it becomes obvious that this one adjustment will affect a huge percentage of music and, as a result, your music making ability.
Fortunately, most players make the needed adjustments for chords to “ring” quite naturally. For those of you that would prefer not to leave things to instinct, though, there are a few quick and easy rules that you can use to make various chords sound their best. As I have already mentioned, any time there is a perfect fifth, the fifth should be raised relative to the root. In addition, the third in a major chord should be lowered slightly, and the third of a minor chord should be raised slightly. Following these simple rules will lead to chords that sound purer and more resonant. When we use a tuner, however, it is possible to let it override all of this by simply concentrating on centering the needle. This results in chords that lack sparkle and vibrancy. For example, if you are playing a melody that contains an E over a C major chord, then that E will need to be slightly low in order for it to sound in tune. The tuner, however, will tell you it is flat: about 27 cents flat to be precise. Conversely, if you are playing an E over an A major chord, then the E will have to be raised in order for it to sound in tune. The tuner, however, would disagree with your assessment and inform you that you are in fact playing the E sharp. Don’t listen to it! It is not always your friend.
Okay, so now you know that you may have to “disagree” with your tuner in order to play certain chords and melodies in tune, but the adjustment is simple. You deftly adjust the appropriate members of the chord the correct amount, and everything is fine. Any other information you get from your tuner can be counted on for its utter infallibility. The machine rules the day again, right? Well… not exactly. There is more to the fallibility of the tuner that needs to be discussed.
If you are accustomed to playing a note and then looking at the tuner to determine whether you are in tune or not, it is possible you are being misled to a surprising degree. Even if we don’t consider any of the “chord effect” intonation issues mentioned above, our tuner may be giving us information that is downright deviant. How can this be? Simple. A tuner is designed to determine the frequency of a pitch. It then compares that frequency to the “correct” frequencies programmed in its memory and shows you the result with its indicator. How can that be deviant? Well, in truth, it isn’t deviant. The tuner isn’t giving us inaccurate information, and it isn’t intentionally misleading us. The problem really arises in its ignorance or, truthfully speaking, in ours.
One thing no tuner has a concept of is how centered any particular note you play may be. If, for instance, you pull out your slide to where your instrument is tuned 30 cents flat, and then you play 30 cents sharp, the tuner will register a beaming “you-are-in-tune!” The truth, though, is that we are anything but in tune. We are actually 30 cents flat and sharp at the same time! The instrument is flat, but our technique is sharp; both things need to be corrected. The answer is obvious: push the slide in, and play in the center of the note, rather than pinching everything sharp. But if we follow our tuner’s indicator and leave everything alone, we are headed for sure disaster. To be fair, this is clearly much more our problem than our tuner’s, and we need to accept the sole responsibility of playing our instrument in an efficient and centered manner.
At this point it should be clear: your tuner is not always giving you accurate information. So the question becomes, what do we do about it? Do we simply give in to that urge to throw it on the floor and gleefully trounce it with our repeated jumping? After all, we now understand that any information it gives us is highly suspect and potentially damaging! Again… not exactly. Take off your spiked shoes and listen for just a bit longer.
Your tuner should still hold a prized place on (or near) your music stand. It is important to remember that a tuner is a tool: nothing more, nothing less. It does not think or judge; it simply provides data. It is our job to interpret that data and use it in one way or another. Our ability to interpret needs to be learned and refined so that we can use this tool to our benefit, rather than our detriment. If you play a note into your tuner and it indicates that you are sharp, then you should think about the role of that note in the melody or chord in which it occurs. You should pay attention to the way you are playing the note and see whether it is the horn or your technique that needs to be adjusted. Also, don’t forget that tuners can be calibrated. It could be that the ensemble you play in tunes to A=442hz. If your tuner is calibrated to A=440hz, then when you practice with your tuner, your horn will register as sharp. This, of course, is only partially accurate. The tuner has no clue that you have been tuning to an ensemble that plays at A=442; it simply tells you that you are sharp compared to the A=440 that it is set to.
In the end, pitch is relative, as is the information we get from our tuner. Playing with good intonation is an art of relativity. Your pitch needs to be good relative to other players, other chord members, and even relative to yourself. So resist the urge to huck your tuner directly into the trash. It can be a very effective tool for clearing the oft-muddled waters of intonation. But it will be up to you — your mind and your ears — to make it serve any use whatsoever.
April 13th, 2006 § § permalink
Some people may be wondering why I have had nothing more to say regarding the controversy created by the Chicken Little article. Perhaps my silence is being viewed as some kind of statement, or a reflection on how I feel about the subject. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
What my silence indicates is simply this: my 10 year old son from California is here for his Spring Break, and I am going to spend every minute I can with him. As always, it’s all about priorities, and mine are with family. I’ll be back and writing soon, although I don’t know that Chicken Little will be at the top of my list of topics. I guess we will have to wait and see. Until then…
April 7th, 2006 § § permalink
Well, I seem to have raised a stir. That’s good. The amount of thought and discussion regarding my Chicken Little article is a good thing. In many ways, that is one of the key purposes of this website: to present ideas, to challenge people to think outside the lines, and, hopefully, to inspire people to continue their pursuit of mastering the instrument.
That being said, it is important to make a few clarifications regarding this particular article. Many people understand this article perfectly, exactly as it is, and many people do not. Because of that, I want to make my intent perfectly clear, no satire involved.
The Chicken Little article was not written for the extremely talented young players that are able to compete for, and win, the most prestigious orchestra jobs in the country. It was written for the 99.9% of the trumpet community who are forced to endure a sometimes endless struggle just to try to make a living. Some people understand this article to be about bashing talented young trumpet players like Matthew Muckey. That is not my intent at all, and if the article is read carefully, without bias, it is very clear. That without bias thing, however, is not always easy to do.
Many of you would be surprised to know that I worked with Matt when he was in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, in fact, I was the one who he auditioned for in order to get in. He was a 15 year old kid from Sacramento who came in and blew our minds. Every week, he made the 2 plus hour trip into San Francisco in order to play in the Youth Orchestra. He worked hard, played well, and was an extremely valuable member of a very talented trumpet section. Matt is truly talented. Matt is also extremely focused, hard working, and a really nice guy. The most important thing I will say in this post comes next. Get out your magic marker, set up your tape recorder, whatever you need to do, this is as plain and straightforward as I can say it:
Matthew Muckey deserves this job. He has earned it. He showed me at 15 years old that he had the ability to win a job like this someday. I have no doubt that he will go on to have an incredibly successful career, wherever it takes him. He has made plenty of sacrifices to get to this level, and they have paid off. My hat goes off to Matt, and I wish him the warmest and most heartfelt congratulations. However, this article was not written for Matt. It was written for everybody else besides those few who sail from school into elite jobs without seeming to even break a sweat.
I have been in the trenches. I have friends there. I have students there. I know people that have sacrificed everything they could possibly think of to win any orchestra job, and never succeeded. I know people that are extremely talented and gifted musicians that never quite had the fortune of things going their way, or never found a solution to that one particular problem that kept getting them cut. I know people that have foregone successful careers in business to try to make a run at an orchestral career, only to have their hopes and dreams stomped into oblivion. To these people, Matt Muckey is a heart breaker, a dream ender: not Matt himself, but what his statistics say. To anyone not talented enough to win a post in a top five orchestra before they finish their undergraduate degree — and that is almost all of us — talented young people like Matt can be just the thing that makes us throw our arms up in despair and abandon our dreams. If you are in this group, Chicken Little is for you. It says forget your age, forget whether you are behind or ahead, and follow your dream. Follow it until you realize it just isn’t your dream anymore, then find another one, get on, and ride it for all it is worth.
Oh yeah, and just in case you are curious, I knew exactly who Matt was when I heard the news, and before I wrote the article. And to whatever extent I can be proud of him, I truly am! (although I have no clue if I ever taught him anything worth remembering in that year of coaching his trumpet section. Maybe he can tell you.)
So congratulations Matt Muckey! You have done something that is truly extraordinary. And to those of you that despair over the news of someone so young achieving so much, take heart, your day may be yet to come.
April 3rd, 2006 § § permalink
This time it’s real. It’s take-it-in-the-gut-and-suck-the-air-out-of-you real! This is no mamby-pamby children’s tale. This is the unrated, uncut, unfit for human eyes, director’s version. We have all seen the signs – the little pieces of sky falling here and there – but we have chosen to ignore them. Now, we can’t afford to do that anymore. The sky of our trumpet world is falling, collapsing in a heap around us. Young kids in diapers winning orchestra jobs left and right, leaving everyone else to ponder why in the world they ever picked up a trumpet in the first place. It is time for a panic: a sell-all-your-horns-on-eBay-get-your-real-estate-license-why-have-I-wasted-
so-much-of-my-life-playing-the-trumpet kind of panic. We need the expert. We need Chicken Little.
If you have ever envisioned a career playing in a major symphony orchestra, your sky is falling, and falling in big juicy chunks. Early on there was Chris Martin. I think Chris won his first orchestra gig when he chose to focus on the audition list for the Philadelphia Orchestra, rather than the 8th grade band tryout material his band director had assigned. Okay, so he wasn’t that young, but he was young enough. When he won the Associate Principal Trumpet position in the Philadelphia Orchestra, the writing was on the wall. If you looked carefully, you could see pieces of sky already beginning to peel off and small chunks falling to the ground. But no one was that concerned then, and the falling sky was almost universally ignored. Now, he has won the vaunted position of Principal Trumpet in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, leaving anyone else with desires for the job to wait in their swaddling clothes for the next audition in 2040, or 2050, or, if he stays as long as Bud Herseth, 2059. And you thought the wait at your favorite restaurant on a Friday night was bad. What is that on the ground beside you?
More recently, we have the shining example of Carol Jantsch, the 20-year-old wunderkind who bagged the prestigious tuba position in the Philadelphia Orchestra. She is the first female tuba player in the history of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and is likely the first female tuba player to hold a position in any major American symphony orchestra. She won’t be starting her new job right away, though. She needs to go back to school and finish her undergraduate degree. Yes, that is what I said: undergraduate degree. “But she is a tuba player,” you protest, “I play the trumpet. It is an entirely different thing?” Maybe it is. What’s that on your shoe?
Did anyone see the video clips of the four-year-old kid playing the trumpet? His playing is pretty good — he probably would out perform many high school students. Did I mention he is four? I don’t know if I was even potty trained when I was four. But I’m glad I was when I saw that video. I needed it then!
This past week, however, contained another viscous body blow to anyone who thought that you could actually learn to play the trumpet, rather than simply emerge from the womb, trumpet in hand, Mahler 5 blazing out the bell. Northwestern student Mathew Mucky was the surprise winner of the Associate Principal Trumpet chair in the New York Philharmonic. Like Carol Jantsch, Mathew will likely be unable to start his new position right away. He’s got to get that pesky undergraduate degree sewed up before heading off to New York. Having reached the grand old age of 21, Mr. Muckey will be bringing in over $100,000 playing the trumpet in the best brass section in the country. Fortunately for him, having reached a legal drinking age, his friends will be able to buy him a beer to celebrate his achievement.
I remember when I finished my undergraduate degree. Somehow I missed the option that took me directly into the New York Philharmonic, so I opted to continue my education and get my Master’s degree. After completing my Master’s degree I again missed that path (Do not pass go. Do not collect $100,000), and decided to freelance for a while. I can say, however, that the January after earning my Master’s degree in trumpet performance, I managed to make $100! Yes, that is sadly the correct number of zeros after the 1. Where the #@$!% is that mangy little bird?
It is time to panic. Sound the alarm. Sell your trumpets. Get a newspaper route. Run like the wind. No, run like Forest Gump, only further, faster, and more clean-shaven. Someone get the Chicken Little Phone. Step away from your computer now. Let the great panic of the trumpet world commence!
* * *
What? Why are you still reading? You should be in a full-fledged panic at this point. You should at least be polishing up your horns for the great eBay sell off of 2006. Are you hoping that there is some moral to the story, some sappy-happy ending that will make you feel all warm and cuddly inside? Well, you won’t get it here. The sky of your trumpet career is crashing down all around you, and you are frozen to your computer. Your alpha, your omega, your dreamy orchestra career in all its blazing glory is smashing to the pavement in big juicy chunks. Okay, so maybe it isn’t your alpha and your omega, but it is important right? Just think of all the time you have invested attempting to reach your goals. Now, they are being destroyed by some kid in diapers, who can’t comprehend why in the world anyone would ever struggle so mightily to play the trumpet.
Still not convinced? Good. You might just get that sappy ending after all. Before you finalize all seven of your eBay trumpet auctions, sit down and think for a moment. Why do you play the trumpet? Really think about it. Don’t just give yourself a knee-jerk reaction of an answer. Think in depth about your true motivations for playing your instrument. Now, ask yourself if the success of any of these diaper-laden-orchestra-superstars has really changed that? True, you may have really wanted that now-filled position, but there will be other positions. There are always more positions. It may seem certain that these jobs are gone, never to return during your audition career, but that is not necessarily the case. We have no crystal ball to see how the future will play out. Everything may seem certain from our current perspective, but then again, our current perspective is not a really good one for viewing the whole parade.
The bottom line is this: if you play your instrument because you love it, then none of these recent events will change that. If you have aspirations for greatness on the trumpet and in music, you should keep striving. There will be opportunities. Pathways will unfold before you, leading you into directions that you never imagined. There is no way to know how your talent will blossom. Some flowers bloom early in spring, others late in the summer; the timing is of little concern, for their beauty is unaffected. It is difficult to know if and when your career will bloom, but if you work hard and smart, you will have opportunities. Make the most of them, and see where they take you. In the end, whether your career is a success or not, it will likely be the journey, rather than the destination, that gives you the best stories and brings you the most joy. It is entirely possible that Chicken Little is wiser and more discerning than we could have ever imagined. Happy Practicing.
April 1st, 2006 § § permalink
When I am not practicing, teaching, enjoying time with the family, or writing, yet managing to not collapse into a heap on the floor; I enjoy riding my bicycle. I am also a big fan of bicycle racing, and I subscribe to a magazine called Cycle Sport, which covers the sport and its athletes. As I was reading Cycle Sport a few days ago, I came across a very interesting statement by Viatcheslav Ekimov. Now, I’m sure 98% of you have no idea who Viatcheslav Ekimov is. For a detailed bio, you can click the link above. If you aren’t wanting to invest that much time, all you need to know for the purposes of this post is simply that he is a two time Olympic Gold Medalist who is now 40 years old, and still racing competitively. Also, it is worth noting that he has completed the Tour de France an astounding 14 times. When asked how he explains his longevity and success in a sport where most athletes retire by the age of 35, he replied:
Organization keeps me in good shape, and it gives me motivation. I wake up, and I know what I am going to do today. Tonight, I know what I am going to do tomorrow.
Before I turned pro I was in cycling school for ten years (that’s USSR Cycling School), and the program was organized from early morning to late in the evening. When I turned pro I tried to stay the same way.
Simple, yet highly effective advice for most any walk of life.